Eternal return

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Eternal return (also known as "eternal recurrence") is a concept that the universe and all existence and energy has been recurring, and will continue to recur, in a self-similar form an infinite number of times across infinite time or space. The concept is found in Indian philosophy and in ancient Egypt and was subsequently taken up by the Pythagoreans and Stoics. With the decline of antiquity and the spread of Christianity, the concept fell into disuse in the Western world, with the exception of Friedrich Nietzsche, who connected the thought to many of his other concepts, including amor fati.

In addition, the philosophical concept of eternal recurrence was addressed by Arthur Schopenhauer. It is a purely physical concept, involving no supernatural reincarnation, but the return of beings in the same bodies. Time is viewed as being not linear but cyclical.[citation needed]


The basic premise proceeds from the assumption that the probability of a world coming into existence exactly like our own is greater than zero (we know this because our world exists). If space and time are infinite, then logic follows that our existence must recur an infinite number of times.[1]

In 1871 Louis Auguste Blanqui, assuming a Newtonian cosmology where time and space are infinite, claimed to have demonstrated eternal recurrence as a mathematical certainty.[2] In the post-Einstein period researchers cast doubts on the idea that time or space was in fact infinite, but many models[citation needed] provided the notion of spatial or temporal infinity required by the eternal-return hypothesis.

The oscillatory universe model in physics offers an example of how the universe may cycle through the same events infinitely. Arthur Eddington's concept "arrow of time", for example, discusses cosmology as proceeding up to a certain point, after which it undergoes a time reversal (which, as a consequence of T-symmetry, is thought to bring about a chaotic state due to entropy).[citation needed] Stephen Hawking and J. Richard Gott have also proposed models by which a universe could undergo time travel, provided the balance between mass and energy created the appropriate cosmological geometry.[citation needed]

Multiverse hypotheses in physics describe models where space or time is infinite, although local universes with their own big bangs could be finite space-time bubbles.[citation needed]

Classical antiquity[edit]

Scarab on a fresco.

In ancient Egypt, the scarab (or dung beetle) was viewed as a sign of eternal renewal and reemergence of life, a reminder of the life to come. (See also "Atum" and "Ma'at.")

The ancient Mayans and Aztecs also took a cyclical view of time.

In ancient Greece, the concept of eternal return was connected with Empedocles, Zeno of Citium, and most notably in Stoicism (see ekpyrosis).

Indian religions[edit]

The concept of cyclical patterns is very prominent in Indian religions, such as Jainism, Hinduism, Sikhism and Buddhism among others. The wheel of life represents an endless cycle of birth, life, and death from which one seeks liberation. In Tantric Buddhism, a wheel of time concept known as the Kalachakra expresses the idea of an endless cycle of existence and knowledge.[3]

While explaining the "true self" (Atma or "Me"), lord Krishna describes the "repeating nature of universe" as a backdrop in few verses:

Bhagavad Gita

8.17 - Knowing that thousand eras constitute a day of Brahman, [and] thousand eras complete a night, are the people who know day, [and] night.
8.18 - On arrival of day, all manifestations originate from "Unmanifest"; On arrival of night they annihilate into [what is] known as "Unmanifest" only.
8.19 - This [same] elementary world only happens again & again; Annihilates upon arrival of night, [and] originates upon arrival of day.


See also: Gilgul Neshamot
Jacob's Ladder by William Blake (c. 1800, British Museum, London). - Jewish time is linear, has an end and goes up towards spiritual heaven. To step spiritually higher each cyclic year or festive event is well illustrated by this painting, depicting a spiral ladder up.

Judaism posits a creation narrative "In the beginning" and a redeemed Olam Haba at the end, which means Judaism has a linear, not a cyclical concept of time, at least regarding the physical world. However, as the Creator is eternal and without beginning or end, things in time attain some form of eternal-ity through a relationship with Him. Additionally, the Midrash posits that historical events in the history of the Jewish people repeat themselves. There is a spiritual repetition, too, and the influence is transmitted year after year, no matter the "distance" from the original event. As a result, the actions in a person's life directly affect their life in the next world, or after death, and are direct manifestations of the spiritual influences of what they did in this world (see the Kabbalah of the Ariza'l).[4] There is also a perspective that time is composed of seven cycles, which repeat every seven thousand years (a view rejected by Isaac Luria). These concepts give human choices to do good deeds in Olam HaZeh — "this world" - some of what Nietzsche called the eternal recurrence's "infinite weight".[5]

Twice in Ecclesiastes, there are concise statements of an idea of recurrence: "What has been, is what will be [...]", "What is, has already been; what will be, has already been [...]", (1:9 and 3:15, resp.). However, their context is not as assertions of a tenet of time being cyclic or infinite; instead, they appear as just items in the long list of the book's reiterations of its theme that life is hevel (vain, futile). See main article: Ecclesiastes.


The symbol of the Ouroboros, the snake or dragon devouring its own tail, is the alchemical symbol par excellence of eternal recurrence. The alchemist-physicians of the Renaissance and Reformation were aware of the idea of eternal recurrence; the physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne in his A Letter to a Friend c. 1657 linked the Uroboros symbol with the idea of eternal return thus -

that the first day should make the last, that the Tail of the Snake should return into its Mouth precisely at that time, and they should wind up upon the day of their Nativity, is indeed a remarkable Coincidence, which tho Astrology hath taken witty pains to salve, yet hath it been very wary in making Predictions of it.

An allusion to eternal recurrence also occurs at the conclusion of Browne's The Garden of Cyrus.

All things began in order, so shall they end, and so shall they begin again.

Friedrich Nietzsche[edit]

The concept of "eternal recurrence", the idea that with infinite time and a finite number of events, events will recur again and again infinitely, is central to the writings of Friedrich Nietzsche.[6] As Heidegger points out in his lectures on Nietzsche, Nietzsche's first mention of eternal recurrence, in aphorism 341 of The Gay Science (cited below), presents this concept as a hypothetical question rather than postulating it as a fact. According to Heidegger, it is the burden imposed by the question of eternal recurrence—whether or not such a thing could possibly be true—that is so significant in modern thought: "The way Nietzsche here patterns the first communication of the thought of the 'greatest burden' [of eternal recurrence] makes it clear that this 'thought of thoughts' is at the same time 'the most burdensome thought.' "[7]

The thought of eternal recurrence appears in a few of his works, in particular §285 and §341 of The Gay Science and then in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The most complete treatment of the subject appears in the work entitled Notes on the Eternal Recurrence, a work which was published in 2007 alongside Søren Kierkegaard's own version of eternal return, which he calls 'repetition'. Nietzsche sums up his thought most succinctly when he addresses the reader with: "Everything has returned. Sirius, and the spider, and thy thoughts at this moment, and this last thought of thine that all things will return". However, he also expresses his thought at greater length when he says to his reader:

"Whoever thou mayest be, beloved stranger, whom I meet here for the first time, avail thyself of this happy hour and of the stillness around us, and above us, and let me tell thee something of the thought which has suddenly risen before me like a star which would fain shed down its rays upon thee and every one, as befits the nature of light. - Fellow man! Your whole life, like a sandglass, will always be reversed and will ever run out again, - a long minute of time will elapse until all those conditions out of which you were evolved return in the wheel of the cosmic process. And then you will find every pain and every pleasure, every friend and every enemy, every hope and every error, every blade of grass and every ray of sunshine once more, and the whole fabric of things which make up your life. This ring in which you are but a grain will glitter afresh forever. And in every one of these cycles of human life there will be one hour where, for the first time one man, and then many, will perceive the mighty thought of the eternal recurrence of all things:- and for mankind this is always the hour of Noon".[8]

This thought is indeed also noted in a posthumous fragment.[9] The origin of this thought is dated by Nietzsche himself, via posthumous fragments, to August 1881, at Sils-Maria. In Ecce Homo (1888), he wrote that he thought of the eternal return as the "fundamental conception" of Thus Spoke Zarathustra.[10]

Scene of Nietzsche's inspiration: „by a massive, pyramidally piled up block not far from Surlei“.

Several authors have pointed out other occurrences of this hypothesis in contemporary thought. Rudolf Steiner, who revised the first catalogue of Nietzsche's personal library in January 1896, pointed out that Nietzsche would have read something similar in Eugen Dühring's Courses on philosophy (1875), which Nietzsche readily criticized. Lou Andreas-Salomé pointed out that Nietzsche referred to ancient cyclical conceptions of time, in particular by the Pythagoreans, in the Untimely Meditations. Henri Lichtenberger and Charles Andler have pinpointed three works contemporary to Nietzsche which carried on the same hypothesis: J.G. Vogt, Die Kraft. Eine real-monistische Weltanschauung (1878), Auguste Blanqui, L'éternité par les astres (1872) and Gustave Le Bon, L'homme et les sociétés (1881). Walter Benjamin juxtaposes Blanqui and Nietzsche's discussion of eternal recurrence in his unfinished, monumental work The Arcades Project.[11] However, Gustave Le Bon is not quoted anywhere in Nietzsche's manuscripts; and Auguste Blanqui was named only in 1883. Vogt's work, on the other hand, was read by Nietzsche during this summer of 1881 in Sils-Maria.[12] Blanqui is mentioned by Albert Lange in his Geschichte des Materialismus (History of Materialism), a book closely read by Nietzsche.[13] The eternal recurrence is also mentioned in passing by the Devil in Part Four, Book XI, Chapter 9 of Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov, which is another possible source that Nietzsche may have been drawing upon.

Walter Kaufmann suggests that Nietzsche may have encountered this idea in the works of Heinrich Heine, who once wrote:

[T]ime is infinite, but the things in time, the concrete bodies, are finite. They may indeed disperse into the smallest particles; but these particles, the atoms, have their determinate numbers, and the numbers of the configurations which, all of themselves, are formed out of them is also determinate. Now, however long a time may pass, according to the eternal laws governing the combinations of this eternal play of repetition, all configurations which have previously existed on this earth must yet meet, attract, repulse, kiss, and corrupt each other again...[14]

Nietzsche calls the idea "horrifying and paralyzing",[citation needed] referring to it as a burden of the "heaviest weight" ("das schwerste Gewicht")[15] imaginable. He professes that the wish for the eternal return of all events would mark the ultimate affirmation of life:

What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: 'This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more' ... Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: 'You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.' [The Gay Science, §341]

To comprehend eternal recurrence in his thought, and to not merely come to peace with it but to embrace it, requires amor fati, "love of fate":[16]

My formula for human greatness is amor fati: that one wants to have nothing different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely to bear the necessary, still less to conceal it—all idealism is mendaciousness before the necessary—but to love it.[16]

In Carl Jung's seminar on Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Jung claims that the dwarf states the idea of the Eternal Return before Zarathustra finishes his argument of the Eternal Return when the dwarf says, "'Everything straight lies,' murmured the dwarf disdainfully. 'All truth is crooked, time itself is a circle.'" However, Zarathustra rebuffs the dwarf in the following paragraph, warning him against over-simplifications.[17]

A late 1880s comment by Nietzsche, "In an infinite period of time, every possible combination would at some time be attained," has been cited to argue that Nietzsche dropped his plans to try to scientifically prove the theory because he realized that if he would have to eventually repeat life as it is, his presumption of infinite time means "he" would also have to "repeat" life differently, since every configuration of atoms and events will occur.[18] Instead, according to this interpretation of Nietzsche, he continued to propound the doctrine for its psychological and philosophical import. Though section 1063 of his posthumous notebooks "The Will To Power" states, “The law of conservation of energy demands eternal recurrence."

Poincaré recurrence theorem[edit]

Related to the concept of eternal return is the Poincaré recurrence theorem in mathematics. It states that a system whose dynamics are volume-preserving and which is confined to a finite spatial volume will, after a sufficiently long time, return to an arbitrarily small neighborhood of its initial state. "A sufficiently long time" could be much longer than the predicted lifetime of the observable universe (see 1 E19 s and more).

Albert Camus[edit]

The philosopher and writer Albert Camus explores the notion of "eternal return" in his essay on "The Myth of Sisyphus," in which the repetitive nature of existence comes to represent life's absurdity, something the hero seeks to withstand through manifesting what Paul Tillich called, "The Courage to Be." Though the task of rolling the stone repeatedly up the hill without end is inherently meaningless, the challenge faced by Sisyphus is to refrain from despair. Hence Camus famously concludes that, "one must imagine Sisyphus happy."

Modern cosmology[edit]

While the big bang theory in the framework of relativistic cosmology seems to be at odds with eternal return, there are now many different speculative big bang scenarios in quantum cosmology which actually imply eternal return - although based on other assumptions than Nietzsche's.[19] So there are competing models and hypotheses with a temporal, spatial or spatio-temporal eternal return of everything in all variations as Nietzsche has envisaged.

The oscillating universe theory—that the universe will end in a collapse or 'big crunch' followed by another big bang, and so on—dates from 1930. Cosmologists such as professor Alexander Vilenkin from Tufts University[20] and Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Max Tegmark suggest that if space is sufficiently large and uniform, or infinite as some theories suggest, and if quantum theory is true such that there is only a finite number of configurations within a finite volume possible, due to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, then identical instances of the history of Earth's entire Hubble volume occur every so often, simply by chance. Tegmark calculates that our nearest so-called doppelgänger, is 1010115 meters away from us (a double exponential function larger than a googolplex).[21][22][23] In principle, it would be impossible to scientifically verify an identical Hubble volume. However, it does follow as a fairly straightforward consequence from otherwise unrelated scientific observations and theories. Tegmark suggests that statistical analyses exploiting the anthropic principle provide an opportunity to test multiverse theories in some cases. Generally, science would consider a multiverse theory that posits neither a common point of causation, nor the possibility of interaction between universes, to be an ideal speculation. However, it is a fundamental assumption of cosmology that the universe continues to exist beyond the scope of the observable universe, and that the distribution of matter is everywhere the same at such a large scale (see cosmological principle).

Opposing argument[edit]

Nietzsche scholar Walter Kaufmann has described an argument originally put forward by Georg Simmel, which rebuts the claim that a finite number of states must repeat within an infinite amount of time:

Even if there were exceedingly few things in a finite space in an infinite time, they would not have to repeat in the same configurations. Suppose there were three wheels of equal size, rotating on the same axis, one point marked on the circumference of each wheel, and these three points lined up in one straight line. If the second wheel rotated twice as fast as the first, and if the speed of the third wheel was 1/π of the speed of the first, the initial line-up would never recur.[24]

Thus a system could have an infinite number of distinct physical configurations that never recur. However the example presupposes the possibility of perfect continuity: for instance, if the universe proves to have a quantum foam nature, then the exact quantity of an irrational number cannot be expressed by any physical object.[citation needed]

In popular culture[edit]

Popular statements of the eternal return typically miss the central point of an absence of a sense of repetition.[25]

  • Indian metal band Eternal Returns adapts the concepts of eternal return to its music, lyrical concepts and composition.
  • An American melodic death metal band named Darkest Hour named their Sixth album The Eternal Return.
  • In the 1984 novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being Milan Kundera uses Friedrich Nietzsche's doctrine of the eternal return to illustrate lightness. In the novel existence is declared weighty because according to the theory it stands fixed in an infinite cycle. This weightiness is “the heaviest of burdens”, for “if every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross.” The inverse of this concept is Kundera's “unbearable lightness of being”.
  • In the 2002 science fiction novel Permanence Karl Schroeder recycles Nietzsche's myth of the eternal return to critique all organized religion with a plot device he describes as the Supreme Meme. The philosophic question asked is whether or not the subject would choose to relive the same life over again "exactly as it was, no detail spared?"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tegmark M., "Parallel universes". Sci Am. 2003 May; 288(5):40–51.
  2. ^ Jean-Pierre Luminet (2008-03-28). "The Wraparound Universe". AK Peters, Ltd. ISBN 978-1-56881-309-7 
  3. ^ August Thalheimer: Introduction to Dialectical Materialism Archived September 9, 2016, at the Wayback Machine. from Google Cache
  4. ^ citations in Rabbi Joseph Hayim, Da'at U'Tevunah, p. 90, , translated in Zev Golan, "God, Man and Nietzsche: A Startling Dialogue between Judaism and Modern Philosophers", iUniverse, 2007, p 5
  5. ^ Zev Golan, "God, Man and Nietzsche: A Startling Dialogue between Judaism and Modern Philosophers", iUniverse, 2007, pp4-14
  6. ^
  7. ^ See Heidegger Nietzsche. Volume II: The Eternal Recurrence of the Same trans. David Farrell Krell. New York: Harper and Row, 1984. 25.
  8. ^ Notes on the Eternal Recurrence - Vol. 16 of Oscar Levy Edition of Nietzsche's Complete Works (in English)
  9. ^ 1881 (11 [143])
  10. ^ Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, "Why I Write Such Good Books", "Thus Spoke Zarathustra", §1
  11. ^ Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Belknap-Harvard, 2002. See chapter D, "Boredom Eternal Return," pp. 101-119.
  12. ^ "?". Archived from the original on November 16, 2006.  and "revision of previous catalogues".  on the École Normale Supérieure's website
  13. ^ Alfred Fouillée, "Note sur Nietzsche et Lange: le "retour éternel", in Revue philosophique de la France et de l'étranger. An. 34. Paris 1909. T. 67, S. 519-525 (French)
  14. ^ Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche; Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. 1959, page 376.
  15. ^ Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. 1999, page 5.
  16. ^ a b Dudley, Will. Hegel, Nietzsche, and Philosophy: Thinking Freedom. 2002, page 201.
  17. ^ Gildersleeve, M. (2015). The Gay Science and the Rosarium Philosophorum. Agathos, 6(2), 37.
  18. ^ Golan, God, Man and Nietzsche, pp2-3
  19. ^ Rüdiger Vaas: "Ewig rollt das Rad des Seins": Der 'Ewige-Wiederkunfts-Gedanke' und seine Aktualität in der modernen physikalischen Kosmologie. In: Helmut Heit, Günter Abel, Marco Brusotti (eds.): Nietzsches Wissenschaftsphilosophie. de Gruyter: Berlin, New York 2012, S. 371-390. ISBN 9783110259377 content
  20. ^ Alex Vilenkin: Many Worlds in One. New York: Hill and Wang 2006
  21. ^ Tegmark, M (May 2003). "Parallel universes. Not just a staple of science fiction, other universes are a direct implication of cosmological observations". Sci Am. 288 (5): 40–51. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0503-40. PMID 12701329. 
  22. ^ Max Tegmark (2003). "Parallel Universes". In "Science and Ultimate Reality: from Quantum to Cosmos", honoring John Wheeler's 90th birthday. J. D. Barrow, P.C.W. Davies, & C.L. Harper eds. Cambridge University Press (2003). 288: 40–51. arXiv:astro-ph/0302131Freely accessible. doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0503-40. PMID 12701329. 
  23. ^ Tegmark, Max (May 2003). "Parallel Universes". Scientific American: 41. 
  24. ^ Kaufmann, Walter. Nietzsche: Philosopher, Psychologist, Antichrist. (Fourth Edition) Princeton University Press, 1974. p327
  25. ^ The Palgrave Handbook of Posthumanism in Film and Television. ISBN 978-1137430311. Retrieved 5 July 2016.